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Why Is Grace Important in a Covenantal Community?
People may usually think of God’s grace as a personal gift. But as Paul and the other New Testament apostles wrote to the various churches that they had helped establish on their missionary journeys, they would often describe obtaining the grace of Jesus Christ as a goal, not only for individuals, but also for the entire covenantal community to obtain and reach together. Unlike most modern conceptions of grace, Paul and his brethren understood “grace” as establishing reciprocal relationships between givers and receivers of great blessings and sacrifices (this ancient perspective on grace is consistent with Latter-day Saint beliefs today). Grace was therefore a critical need for the early Christian church, as Jesus offered, through His grace, a chance for both individuals and communities to be saved from physical and spiritual death.1
While grace (charis in Greek) could be experienced on a personal level as individuals converted and then made and kept covenants with the Lord, it was also to be experienced as an entire covenantal community. Paul referenced this aspect of grace multiple times throughout his letters. Receiving God’s charis created obligations for members of the covenant community not only to God, but also to the community as well.
Brent J. Schmidt has observed how, in Paul’s letters, grace could be received in a three-way covenant between the individual, God, and the church. This covenant ultimately allows us to be “adopted” as children of Jesus Christ, strictly made possible through “the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:5–6). And, as we are all children of this covenant, we are in “obligated relationships” with Christ “according to ancient conventions associated with charis.”2
These obligated relationships require that we live as He lived and help other members of this covenantal family. Some of the obligations that members are expected to show the community include (1) faithfulness or loyalty towards one another,3 as well as (2) showing gratitude. And as noted by Schmidt, “Gratitude and love for God,” which is asked of all faithful believers, “also requires loving one’s neighbor.”4 This doctrine is expressed throughout the New Testament, perhaps most notably in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus commanded us to love everyone, even our enemies: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Another aspect of the community obligations arising out of charis involved serving one another. Throughout his epistles Paul frequently encouraged the Saints to donate goods and money to the Jerusalem Saints, who were experiencing a great famine. The reciprocal nature of this is expressed in 2 Corinthians 8:14: “But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality.” By aiding the Jerusalem Saints in this hard time, the Corinthian Saints could be assured that should they ever be in need, they too would be taken care of by the Saints in Jerusalem and other cities.
Furthermore, in connection with this collection effort, Paul taught, “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). That is, those who give to others only sparingly in their times of need can expect to receive little in return. “And just as God gives grace,” Schmidt observes, “his disciples receive and are expected to do good works themselves and build communities.”5 By aiding the Jerusalem Saints in their time of need and distress, the Corinthian Saints would be blessed temporally and spiritually by God and by others, “for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Indeed, “The Corinthians’ charitable acts toward those in Jerusalem are manifestations of their charis to God.”6
Furthermore, Paul personally requested aid from the Saints throughout his letters. When he would visit cities, often unable to work for a living while on his missions, Paul would rely on the goodness of the Saints to take care of him according to his temporal needs. As he asked the Corinthians, “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” (1 Corinthians 9:11). Being recipients of such sacred knowledge that brought them to know God, Paul asks the Saints to take care of the travelling missionaries in return, himself included. Such a request is easily understood when placed in its proper context of reciprocal covenants of grace.
An understanding of reciprocal and communal nature of grace helps to explain why the New Testament is filled with admonitions exhorting Church members to foster loving relationships and unity within each congregation of Saints.7 This aspect of belonging to Christ’s fold is also present in the Book of Mormon. In Mosiah 18, when Alma was preaching at the Waters of Mormon, taught the principle of grace in relation to the communitarian aspect of the baptismal covenant:
Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life (Mosiah 18:8–9).
Several verses later, we learn that this fledgling covenant community was “filled with the grace of God,” in connection with their honoring of these covenants (Mosiah 18:16).8 To fully accept the grace of God in their lives, they needed to demonstrate through their actions to God and to each other that they were willing to share that grace with others.
The grace of Jesus Christ, while certainly important on an individual level, is also experienced collectively — as God’s children come together, make binding covenants, and take care of one another and serve one another. Such has been the emphasis of Jesus Christ and His prophets throughout each dispensation. As we accept the grace of God into our lives, it will help us become better and live more holy lives, both individually and collectively. This is especially manifest as we spread that gift of grace to others. As Jesus Himself taught, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015), 87–114.
- 1. For more on Paul’s views on grace, see Book of Mormon Central, “What Did Grace Mean to Paul? (Romans 3:23–24),” KnoWhy 683 (August 8, 2023); Brent J. Schmidt, Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2015), 87–114.
- 2. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 92–93.
- 3. For more on Paul’s views on faith, see Book of Mormon Central, “How Did Paul Understand Faith? (Romans 9:30),” KnoWhy 684 (August 15, 2023).
- 4. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 102.
- 5. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 93.
- 6. Schmidt, Relational Grace, 93.
- 7. See, for example, Romans 15:1-6; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 4:25-5:5; Philippians 2:4; Colossians 3:5-17; 1 John 3:16-17; 4:11; 1 Peter 3:8-9.
- 8. Interestingly, analogous to Paul’s request for temporal aid as a traveling missionary, the Book of Mormon mentions grace in connection to the labors of priests: “for their labor they were to receive the grace of God” (Mosiah 18:26). In other words, typically they were only to receive the grace of God—and not monetary aid or physical substance—for their ministerial efforts. However, when the topic is later addressed in the land of Zarahemla, there were exceptions for priests and teachers who were truly in need of aid (as Paul surely was): “Yea, and all their priests and teachers should labor with their own hands for their support, in all cases save it were in sickness, or in much want; and doing these things they did abound in the grace of God” (Mosiah 27:5).
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